[This message was delivered at Perinton Presbyterian Church on 1/30/22, based Ephesians 2:11-22. A video version can be watched on the Perinton Facebook page.]
I’m going to blindfold you. Then I’m going to take you in a car on a road trip. When I park the car, I take you by the hand and lead you into a large room. You sense that it is beautiful—and you are right. I tell you that it is a house of Christian worship. In a moment I will point your head toward the front wall, up above the table. I will take off your blindfold and give you one second to open your eyes and then close them again. I then ask you, are you in a Protestant or Roman Catholic house of worship and why do you think so?
I was raised in the Protestant tradition, and we were very clear about that cross on the front wall. Jesus was not to be on it, because he is risen. I think I detected a sense of pride that we were right about this. Indeed, Jesus is risen, but I think we may have taken Jesus off the cross too soon. The apostle Paul’s letter to the Church in Ephesus, especially chapter 2, makes me think that.
I grew up memorizing Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” Ephesians 2:8-9 was bedrock for us. I believed it then and I believe it now. But I think we stopped too soon. We needed to read the entire chapter and get the rest of the story. “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us.He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”
Now when I see a cross with a figure of Jesus hanging on it, I stop and look at it. I look for how Jesus is portrayed. Is his skin tone light or dark? Does he look like a first century Palestinian Jew or a 21st century American? Does he look serene or anguished? Do I see myself in him?
Take a look at “It Is Finished” by Sandra Bowden. Note how Bowden portrays the crucifixion.
The backdrop for Paul’s teaching here is a story ever old and ever new. The human family doesn’t act like a family a lot of the time. Human history is filled with division. Male and female. Black and brown and white. Poor and rich. One religion against another religion. In Paul’s time the great divide was racial/ethnic: Jew and gentile. For the Jews, this was the insider/outsider divide. Paul was an insider. That shows in Ephesians, written to a largely gentile church far beyond the borders of Israel. Early in today’s passage, he addresses his gentile sisters and brothers this way: “Remember that at one time you Gentiles by birth… were without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” The divide could not have been more stark. Paul, the ultimate insider, is writing to these ultimate outsiders.
In my world, I am an insider. I am a white male, comfortably middle class, suburbanite, well-educated. Further I was raised in the majority religion in my country. I have known a good deal of privilege in my years. It is dangerous to be an insider. We insiders can think that we are simply better than outsiders. That we have earned our privileged status. That God loves us more than God loves the outsiders. While my insider credentials are solid, they pale next to Paul’s, whose insider credentials were impeccable. He was a one-percenter. Elite. When he was confronted by the grace of God in Jesus, all that privilege fell away. Paul would spend much of the rest of his life inviting outsiders to enter the community of grace. Paul, once the insider, now identifies with those he once saw as outsiders.
At the very heart, the epicenter, of this Good News was what Jesus did on the cross. Not just that he died on a cross, but on what he did on that cross. Paul presses the limits of language. He becomes an artist with a large canvas and a palette of color. “In his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down [destroyed] the dividing wall, the hostility between us.He has abolished [rendered obsolete] the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.” Now my personal identity is not in my insider credentials, but in Jesus and what he has done.
We have too often reduced the work of Jesus on the cross to one thing: saving our souls as individuals. We have individualized the work of Calvary as if it had nothing to do with the human community and its dividedness. Paul uses powerful words: Jesus has destroyed the dividing wall, putting to death the hostility that separated us. Yes, Jesus died for me, but not me alone. He died for us and all our divisions. In his own body on that cross, he became insider and outsider, Jew and gentile, black and brown and white, male and female, young and old. He did it to bring insider and outsider together on level ground. To build a church in which there will never be outsiders. A church built on Jesus himself, the true cornerstone, in which radical grace welcomes all, without distinction.
Sometimes we see what the Church ought to be in non-churchy settings. Last Sunday night (1/23/22) there was a football game between the Buffalo Bills and Kansas City Chiefs. Though the outcome broke our hearts in western NY, it was a thrilling game. Since that game, something more amazing than the game has happened. Kansas City Chiefs fans have donated over $465,000 to the Oishei Children’s Hospital in Buffalo. Those donations will help ensure that their medical team has the tools, training, and programs to care for sick kids in Western New York. I love the game of football, but I am more moved by moments that show our common humanity.
Early this week (1/25/22), there was a fire in the Pines of Perinton apartments. Over 60 people were suddenly displaced and homeless, about 40 of them children. There has been a wonderful response in the town, from all the churches, the town government, and townspeople. The churches of Perinton are not competing in this, but cooperating. I am moved by moments that show our common humanity, moments is which the Church is being the Church.
A few days ago we received this message from the director of World Relief in Western NY:
“We have a new couple living at the Ellison Park apartments named Ahmad and Khatera. I’m wondering if we can connect this couple with a Good Neighbor team made up of folks from Perinton Presbyterian. Their English is limited, but their ability to communicate is quite good. They could use some good friends and greater sense of being welcomed here to Rochester.” I am confident that some of you are going to become welcoming friends to Ahmad and Khatera. I am moved, sometimes to tears, by moments that show our common humanity and show the Church being the Church Jesus calls it to be.
My younger daughter’s best friend has been a dear friend of our family for over three decades. She posted an old photo of her extended maternal family, living in Poland in the 1930s.
It looks just like a photo of my extended maternal family, right down to the red wine Italians always have on the table. But Shira’s family isn’t Italian: they are Jewish. Within several years of that happy photo, everyone in the photo was murdered by the Nazis. Another part of the family fled and eventually survived. I am blessed to know some of that family. I remind us that most of the German state church supported the rise of the Nazis. The Third Reich promised the church its favor and the church liked the privileged status the government gave them. And that state supported church stood by silently as millions of Jews were murdered. For shame.
If we look at the work of Jesus on the cross as only individual, as only about forgiving me, we miss the fullness of what the New Testament teaches. Christ died not only for my individual sins; he died for our corporate sins, our societal sins, our systemic sins. On the cross, Jesus brought together in his body all the divisions in our divided world, to create one new humanity. Hear it again from “The Living Bible.”
“For Christ himself is our way of peace. He has made peace between us Jews and you Gentiles by making us all one family, breaking down the wall of contempt that used to separate us.By his death he ended the angry resentment between us…. Then he took the two groups that had been opposed to each other and made them parts of himself; thus he fused us together to become one new person, and at last there was peace. As parts of the same body, our anger against each other has disappeared, for both of us have been reconciled to God. And so the feud ended at last at the cross. And he has brought this Good News of peace [to all of us].”